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Learn the phonetic alphabet

By stretch | Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 3:18 a.m. UTC

How often have you been on one end of a telephone conversation that went like this?

A: "Okay, give me the MAC address."
B: "Zero zero, zero two, six bee--"
A: "Six what?"
B: "Bee."
A: "Bee?"
B: "No, bee!"
A: "Dee?"
B: "Yeah. Six bee, four dee--"
A: "Four bee?"

...and so on. Many letters and sounds are easily confused over telephone conversations or distorted by background noise. It is subsequently worthwhile to every IT professional to memorize the NATO phonetic alphabet to better communicate fragile sounds.

The phonetic alphabet is a mapping of individual letters and numbers to specially chosen words which are unlikely to be mistaken for one another (for instance, none of the words in the phonetic alphabet rhyme). By substituting the NATO alphabet telephony for independent letters and numbers, you can ensure other parties (who also grasp the idea of the phonetic alphabet) can reliably interpret your communication. And you can avoid sounding like a character on a Saturday morning children's show, repeating, "A as in apple, B as in ball..."

NATO Phonetic Alphabet


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December 31, 2009 at 3:28 a.m. UTC

I find this usually identifies the person I am talking to as a veteran. Military that is.

December 31, 2009 at 3:45 a.m. UTC

I do this by habit (former military here). But I never get asked what I'm saying from others. Comes in really handy given that I do a lot of IPT where we're constantly having the conversation in your example to get the MAC from the phones. :)

December 31, 2009 at 3:58 a.m. UTC

Using the NATO phonetic alphabet saved me so much frustration when doing first level helpdesk. So much so when I became a second level, I started teaching it to the new first level staff.

December 31, 2009 at 3:58 a.m. UTC

Being an amateur radio operator, the NATO phonetics are second nature to me now. When in doubt, use standard phonetics. I hate when people make up phonetics when I am thinking NATO. It takes so much longer to get the message across, whether it's on the phone or the radio.

December 31, 2009 at 4:07 a.m. UTC

Or you can also choose to have fun:

B: "Zero zero, zero two, six bee--" A: "Six what?" B: "Six Bee, as in brain." A: "Bee as in brain or Dee as in drain?" B: "Bee, as in drain". A: "Six dee." B: "No!"

December 31, 2009 at 4:07 a.m. UTC

I'll bite. Why 'niner'? 'Nine' doesn't rhyme with any of the numbers or letters. Nine works just as well, and it's 'normal'....or am I missing something?

December 31, 2009 at 4:18 a.m. UTC

I have a habit of using APCO (law enforcement) phonetics. I think I picked it up from years of listening to the scanner, starting when I was a kid (grandma also liked to listen to the neighbors' cordless phone calls too, but that wasn't as interesting to me).

If someone starts speaking NATO phonetics to me, I'll use that. Once had an older customer who was also an amateur radio operator (username was his callsign) get royally pissed at me for saying "Nora" instead of "November". I think I messed with his head a bit when I continued the rest of the conversation using NATO phonetics. :)

December 31, 2009 at 5:13 a.m. UTC

I often use this at my line of work and when I communicate with people if I need to spell out something to them. But just for the knack of it, I sometimes use country names or prefecture names (for my Japanese friends) which makes it a lot easier for those who do not know alpha,bravo, etc, etc. ! :-)

December 31, 2009 at 7:32 a.m. UTC

ive been doing this forever stretch. being signal has engrained it into my brain. it helps TONS when im talking to someone even non-military.

December 31, 2009 at 9:31 a.m. UTC

I'll never understand why this is not taught at school.

December 31, 2009 at 9:43 a.m. UTC

@Aaron - "nine" and "five" can sound similar on a staticky radio transmission, thus "niner"

December 31, 2009 at 9:50 a.m. UTC

'''Why 'niner'? 'Nine' doesn't rhyme with any of the numbers or letters.'''

The use of Niner is usually because over a radio nine and five can be confused. Yes, they are completely different sounding in a normal situation, but with choppy radio communications only the long "I" really comes through, the "er" makes it obvious. Also, the military usually pronounces a lot of numbers on the radio differently, just so that over the radio they sound better. Examples:

1 - one 2 - two 3 - tree 4 - fo-wer 5 - fife 6 - six 7 - seven 8 - eight 9 - niner 0 - zero

December 31, 2009 at 9:53 a.m. UTC

Luckily, in my native tongue since you need to memorize a few words only thanks to unambiguous spelling. Names are commonly used to communicate ambiguous letters, like B and P. There's of course the standard military alphabet but it just slows you down since you have to remember which the name for P is, Paavo, Petteri or Pekka or... Or, for Z you need to say "zeta" and not Zorro which everyone knows. A fine example of military bureaucracy.

December 31, 2009 at 10:39 a.m. UTC


Niner is used because "nine" can be confused with the German "nein" which means no.

December 31, 2009 at 11:58 a.m. UTC

I do this by habit too, not from military but from amateur radio back in the day. I think it's going to become a lot more important with the advent of IPv6 too!

December 31, 2009 at 1:30 p.m. UTC

ooh! something I can actually comment on. Who would have thought that this would actually come in handy after the army. here goes...

@Aaron... In old school two-way radio communication, "Nine" can actually be confused with "Five", hence the "Niner". While I'm at it,

"Five" pronounced as "FIFE" "Four" pronounced as "FO-WAH" "Three" pronounced as "TREE"

December 31, 2009 at 2:46 p.m. UTC

@Jordan & @arrasmithf, I was about to say the same thing about the numbers. Good to have that pointed out.

December 31, 2009 at 5:00 p.m. UTC

I've also heard that when performing countdowns over a radio (10, 9, 8,...), the number "five" is skipped (a pause is inserted in its place) because it sounds too much like "fire". Can anyone confirm if this is true or just a myth?

December 31, 2009 at 9:38 p.m. UTC

I find this usually identifies the person I am talking to as a veteran. Military that is.

... or a sailor ...

In my case I learned it when I was 8 years old and my parents were going to take me sailing in the channel & North Sea. In case I ever had to use the VHF in an emergency.

Interestingly, before standardizing on the present one in the 50s/60s, the English one went "Alpha, Bravo, Coca".... instead of "Charlie"

December 31, 2009 at 9:49 p.m. UTC

joshlowe, I've also heard that, I think maybe on MythBusters?? It does make sense on a noisy connection.

December 31, 2009 at 10:55 p.m. UTC

I learned these when studying for my Ham radio license in Europe. I don't think it is specific to NATO, I think it is more international than that.

January 1, 2010 at 12:11 a.m. UTC

Its "Niner" because Nine means no in Germany and if you are in aviation those two can not be confused

Three is supposed to be TREE AND Five is supposed to be Fife

January 1, 2010 at 8:07 a.m. UTC

I've been doing this for years and I can vouch it is extremely helpful

January 1, 2010 at 8:55 p.m. UTC

3 is actually tree

January 1, 2010 at 9:01 p.m. UTC

I work in a call centre and employed this to avoid confusion! Unfortunately some people are too stupid and don't understand what this means, ever after I explain this. This is especially helpful when I have to give people product keys.

Steven Marzuola
January 1, 2010 at 9:10 p.m. UTC

I studied flying in the USA in the early 1980's. This particular phonet alphabet is used by NATO and thus the US military, but it was originally developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

January 1, 2010 at 10:09 p.m. UTC

Law enforcement officers use different phonetics, for some reason...I don't know the whole set but it seems to start out Abel, Baker...

January 2, 2010 at 2:13 a.m. UTC

but doesn't zulu kind of sound like zero?

January 2, 2010 at 12:04 p.m. UTC

I just fully understood foxtrot uniform charlie kilo by the bloodhound gang.

January 2, 2010 at 2:57 p.m. UTC

@dirt, how do you pronounce zulu that it sounds similar to zero?

January 2, 2010 at 4:37 p.m. UTC

I have worked on helpdesks for a number of years, and using the phonetic alphabet has helped me alot over the years. I have a copy printed on a small piece of paper attached to my screen for reference when my mind goes blank. I tend to prefer to ask lusers to click on 'start' then 'run' and type commands in ie sysdm.cpl, firewall.cpl, ncpa.cpl rather than try to talk them through opening control panel, switch to classic view etc.

January 2, 2010 at 7:55 p.m. UTC

This alphabet is also standard issue among telcos for describing circuit IDs, demarcs, etc. Extremely useful stuff...

January 3, 2010 at 12:39 a.m. UTC

No reason to ever say "niner" if you're using it over the phone.

The only reason niner is used in the aviation industry instead of nine is because English is the universal language of commercial aviation - all pilots must know English if they want to fly internationally. As a result, nine sounds an awful lot like the German word for no - nein.

In order to avoid confusion with German pilots, niner is used in aviation despite the fact that German pilots must speak and understand English. I have never heard of alternate aviation pronunciations for other numbers.

Also, zulu is pronounced as zoo-loo.

I used to work in aviation but now work in IT. I have assisted my company's helpdesk convert to using the standard phonetic alphabet (which is so much more helpful than "D as in Dog, S as in Sally").

I have tried to use it in other situations over the phone, but not enough people know what I'm talking about.

January 3, 2010 at 12:45 a.m. UTC

@joshlowe I'm currently active duty Navy. Every morning, aboard any ship, there's a countdown for everyone to synchronize time when starting the day. 5 is always silent. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6,...,4, 3, 2, 1, Mark.

that guy
January 3, 2010 at 1:07 a.m. UTC

As well as 5 being "fife", 9 being "niner" and 4 being "fow-er", for clarity 1 should be "wun".

January 3, 2010 at 3:49 a.m. UTC

@test - I think when dirt says he thinks zulu sounds similar to zero, he's probably thinking in the Australian/New Zealand/South African accent, or one of the more cockney British ones. They say it more like Dz-aow-laow and zero like zeh-row, instead of the more straightforward American zoo-loo which sounds nothing like zee-ro.

The Old Wolf
January 3, 2010 at 12:48 p.m. UTC

Living in Italy, one learns another system: Ancona, Bologna, Como, Domodossola... A whole cluster of alternatives, just for the curious, is here: http://www.faqs.org/faqs/radio/phonetic-alph/full/

January 3, 2010 at 2:05 p.m. UTC

I use it in my job as a Customer service Representative on Tracfone/Net10/Straight Talk, Its amazing how accurate can be to get addresses and other important information. Actually the company encourage us to use it.

January 3, 2010 at 8:22 p.m. UTC

This is also used by HAM Radio operators as well. They have to pass a test on this in order to get their license.

January 4, 2010 at 9:27 p.m. UTC

Being a Amateur Radio operator I start correcting people when they are using the wrong word. I had coworkers ask why I used them, I'm not sure they really understood the reasoning.

January 5, 2010 at 8:41 a.m. UTC

Why do people always make it difficult, the one and only reason for niner is exactley like others above have said it can be confused with five.

We do not say tree and fife that is just retarded.

And in no way does any of this have anything to do with germans we have been at war with the germans in the past and generally when this system was devised so why would anyone care if we confused them by telling them NO.

January 6, 2010 at 4:12 a.m. UTC

come one people...read before you post....seriously I know you think your the first..but when there are 14 explanations on fife, tree, niner...etc.

January 6, 2010 at 4:21 a.m. UTC

@Military...your just wrong. Re-study your alphabet. Tree, Fower, and Fife are correct according to NATO...don't believe me ask you C.O. Last I checked to unless you were at the meeting when NATO decided on these terms....you only believe its because it sounds like five. Guess what both reasons are true. Maybe one came first...but since the correct pronunciation of five is fife...kind of hard to confuse that with nine. In fact most of these choices were made because of several reasons not just one. Maybe you need to go back to OTS or basic. Then again you probably weren't actually in the military anyways.

January 6, 2010 at 4:34 a.m. UTC

Here's a question for all the ham radio/military folks... Somehow, and I never would have thought this before, but somehow on our radios (I'm in EMS), 3 sounds like 2 and vice versa. Sometimes, with some people. Don't know why, and it's only sometimes...I'd think that they were just confusing their numbers, but it happens often enough and they get pissed enough when I doublecheck that I doubt it. Has anyone ever encountered that? We aren't using the phonetic alphabet unless we have to, we don't have a lot of letters to say over the radio, just our callsigns, like M853 etc.

January 6, 2010 at 3:16 p.m. UTC

As a mil brat, and Rotc this is second nature. I think this is a really cool post, however if you use any word it would work.

B as in Bear